PITTSFIELD — Pittsfield Public School officials said during a school safety presentation that district schools aren’t “in chaos” as some have said following recent fights in the high schools and middle schools.
District data presented during the report to School Committee members on Tuesday night showed that fighting and violence aren’t widespread in middle and high schools this school year — 52 students, or about 2 percent of the 2,646 secondary school students in the district, have been involved in what the administrators consider “more serious” or the “most serious” behavior. These students, along with 13 elementary students, have been involved in 171 high-level incidents this year.
But while district data shows a very localized problem, data from the state made clear that at least Taconic High School is reporting higher numbers of physical attacks, fights and threats of violence than both its in-district peer and several state-identified comparative districts.
School administrators say the higher discipline numbers could be the result of pandemic-related stress on students, a lack of staff to monitor students during passing periods and the unique layout of the high school which makes constant supervision difficult to achieve.
“We’re oversubscribed in our 9th grade and that’s creating a lot of issues,” Taconic Principal Matthew Bishop said. “Of the 10 students involved in altercations this year, eight are freshmen.”
Each year the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education collects and publishes statistics on the number of students disciplined for a long list of infractions from the less severe like vandalism to the more serious like homicide.
Discipline data isn’t available for the last school year, but data from the 2019-20 school year shows that Taconic High School reported 82 students were disciplined for threats or acts of physical attacks or fights. In that same year, Pittsfield High School reported that 50 students were disciplined for the same types of incidents.
Superintendent Joe Curtis told the School Committee on Tuesday night that to date, five PHS students have been disciplined for fighting or physical altercations while 16 THS students have been disciplined for fighting or physical altercations. THS currently has 828 students enrolled and PHS has 685 students enrolled.
“The complexity of the issues that we are responding to are proactively, and unfortunately sometimes reactively, tied to mental health, tied to community and outside issues have far surpassed already what I’ve experience in my career,” Curtis, who was worked in education for 28 years, said.
The data and report on the district’s school safety policies came at the request of committee members following a very public fight at Taconic High School between three students on Sept. 28. That incident has renewed a push through a portion of the community for the district to seek out additional school resource officers to work in the middle and high schools.
Though the hiring and staffing of SROs is the responsibility of the Pittsfield Police Department, the issue has become a topic in the local school committee election race.
The absence of a school resource officer at a recent fight in Taconic High School has led to further questions about the role, responsibilities and usefulness of officers in schools. Here is a breakdown on the ins and outs of the school policing program.
Earlier this month the school committee vote 5-2 to hold off discussing the district’s use of SROs until a community survey could be conducted by an outside consultant. Curtis said that district officials are narrowing in on a contract with TNTP to start work in November or December on the survey. The results of the survey are expected in April.
Curtis said even as the topic of SROs has become fodder for public discussion, he doesn’t believe that having more officers would have impacted the issues the committee is considering.
“Do I feel that an SRO standing right there [at Taconic] would have stopped the fight or prevented it?” Curtis said. “No, I do not.”